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Narrativism and Historical Poetics: The Nineteenth Century

ENGL 795.301



Poetry, it seems, can resist anything better than its own idealizations--particularly its idealization as "lyric": that dubious yet seemingly unshakablene plus ultra of the personal voice, the "singular voice," as T. J. Clark puts it, "uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own."  The idealization of poetry as lyric has been especially tenacious since the rise of the novel and what Bakhtin later called the "novelization of genre."   And this is just part of a much longer history, from Aristotle to Hegel to the present day.  But it's a history frequently ignored or misunderstood when literary critics and theorists sit down to read poems.  Or when they ask others to do so in a certain way, as when lyricists insist too broadly on what W. J. T. Mitchell calls poetry's "freely moving temporal subjectivity," or when narrativists too narrowly require an interpretive commitment to historical continuity.

This seminar homes in on the century during which one can see, hear, and feel most readily, in English-language poetry and poetics, persistent idealizations of lyric taking shape--and taking over reading practices in ways that have yet to be widely understood.   "Historical poetics" is a means to such understanding, and it involves reading together 1) the poetry of the period, 2) the poetic theories that the poetry manifests or that develop alongside it, and 3) the retrospective criticism and theory of more recent times.  Because the second of these tends to be the most conspicuously disregarded, we'll pay special attention to key works of nineteenth-century poetics by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe, Mill, Ruskin, Pater, Whistler, Wilde, and Symons, as well as fascinating but now rather obscure works by Sydney Dobell, William Aytoun, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sidney Lanier, and Robert Bridges.  For poets, we’ll range widely, taking special interest in those whose works best exemplify and/or challenge the idealizations of narrativism and lyricism--poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, Poe, Shelley, Tennyson, the Brownings, Whitman, Dickinson, Meredith, Hopkins, Michael Field, and Stephen Crane.  For recent and contemporary criticism and theory, we’ll look to such figures as Theodor Adorno, Sharon Cameron, Jonathan Culler, Paul de Man, Northrop Frye, Peter Hühn, Virginia Jackson, Fredric Jameson, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Yopie Prins, Susan Stewart, Herbert Tucker, and Hayden White--the nature and extent of these critical/theoretical readings, especially in the latter part of the semester, depending to some degree on the individual research projects of the members of the seminar, who will each deliver an in-class presentation with annotated bibliography and write an article-length essay.  Students are welcome to pursue projects in other nineteenth-century linguistic traditions (e.g., on Baudelaire, Heine, Hugo, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Mistral, Pushkin, etc.), inasmuch as they bear on Anglophone poetry and poetics.

On March 5th and 6th, 2010, the English Department will be hosting the conference "Crossing the Bar: Transatlantic Poetics in the Nineteenth Century."  Seminar members should plan on attending this conference, as it will be part of the work of the seminar to engage its speakers, including Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, whose published work is central to the course.

Undergraduates are not permitted to take 700-level courses.


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